“Spend more time on your drawing.” This is the absolute best advice I’ve ever gotten as an artist. Without a solid drawing, it doesn’t matter how polished your painting technique is. The final work will still end up looking “off.”
Session planning is like that too. If one doesn’t have firm foundational elements, the final session may end up disjointed. In this column, we’ll look at three foundational elements that can help build a memorable session. Obviously this is not meant to be an exhaustive look at session planning, just three things to consider.
A CLEAR GOAL
“Why ARE we here?” That question from one of my players still rings in my mind. For that session, I must not have been clear about their goals, and the session suffered for it. Think about any other game or sport: they all have clear goals. Whether it is making a touchdown or bankrupting your friends, you know the point right from the start. Can you have a good time without a clear goal? Sure. But having one really helps the planning process.
The goal might be gamemaster (GM) generated. This works well for genres with a military-type hierarchy such as Star Trek or Star Wars. Player characters get their orders and get marching.
However, the burden is not all on the GM. Goals can be player generated as well. One player may want to recover his father’s sword, another to avenge his parents’ death, and yet another to become the best disco dancer in 1977 New York City. Ask your players or look at their backgrounds and skills. Also, you can get great goals just by listening carefully. Last session one of the players asked if there was any way to disguise the magical tower that transports them from adventure to adventure (Tardis Chameleon Circuit, anyone?) Guess what the goal for the next session turned into?
Many of us, umm, more seasoned players and GM’s remember old school dungeons. They often took a kitchen sink approach: ghouls in one room, gorillas in the next, and a dragon down the hall (behind a regular house door). Obviously you can have a good time in these wacky games. However, from a design perspective, a motif makes life much easier, and can make for a more memorable game.
For example, suppose your motif is electricity. You can design a setting that looks like Tesla’s tower at Wardenclyffe, lightning bolt style hazards, and sparking steampunk robots. With just a little brainstorming, you have memorable and connected encounters. Don’t feel bound by the motif, however. In our example, not everything in the site needs to run on electricity. You can include some undead or goblin guards if you need them. A motif is supposed to give you a starting point, not tie your hands.
If you want a more random adventure, that can be a motif as well. Perhaps the player characters (PC’s) must explore a zoo built by a madman or mad GM. Perhaps they must recover something from a crashed spaceship that was a sort of cosmic ark populated by random beasties. You’re still using a motif without being constrained.
It’s very easy to throw combat encounter after combat encounter at players. However, for most of us, including varied encounters is a foundational part of our planning. It’s like a movie or TV show: they generally break up the action with a few quiet puzzle-solving or character moments. This piece of advice has been around for a long time, but that doesn’t make it outdated. Physical challenges, traps, puzzles, and roleplaying encounters are just as important as the big battles.
Here are just a few thoughts on varied encounters. First, they need to be able to be solved in various ways. As GM’s, we often have a specific solution in mind. Of course, then the PC’s take a totally different direction. It’s not possible to plan for every contingency, but it doesn’t hurt to consider a few options. Suppose you really want them to hire a certain guide to take them through the jungle planet. Odds are they will completely mistrust him and go in a different direction. Can they navigate the jungle themselves with a few skill checks? Is there an alternative guide available? Will they just try to teleport past the jungle? Just keep some of these in mind in planning and you won’t get blindsided during play.
Second, varied encounters don’t need to be deadly, but they should have consequences. If they fail those jungle skill rolls then they may be tracked through the bush. Or they may slip and lose a weapon or important item. Not every situation needs to be “Save versus Death,” but keeping a little tension really helps.
Third, roleplaying encounters are the most important varied encounter. Without them, we’re just playing a complicated board game. Even if you are planning a combat encounter, jot down at least one or two possible names for your opponents. Consider what they might say if captured or bribed. Almost any encounter with an intelligent being can turn into a roleplaying situation. Having a printout of setting-appropriate names has saved my bacon more than once. Just a tiny bit of work can reap great dividends during play.
Nothing says that you have to have these three points nailed down before planning. Most of us probably work more organically, jotting down ideas, discarding some, etc… However, if at the end of planning, your sessions have a clear goal, a motif, and varied encounters, you should have a memorable framework for the session.
What foundational elements would you add to this list? What points might you expand on or reject? Let us know below (but be gentle, I’m a sensitive soul).